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After becoming the first J. League club to suffer a cluster of infections during the coronavirus pandemic, Sagan Tosu has found itself on the receiving end of a strong wave of criticism over its handling of the incident.

The J. League announced on Thursday night that three first-division games involving the team would be postponed, one day after Tosu President Minoru Takehara declared that the club would suspend its season for two weeks based on the advice of local health officials.

A postponed Levain Cup game between Sagan and Sanfrecce Hiroshima was also canceled after both teams were eliminated from the competition through other results.

“We intend to take any deficiencies identified in our management of the situation incredibly seriously and improve ourselves as a club,” Takehara said in a statement. “Of course we will follow the J. League’s guidelines and protocols as well as aim to make further improvements based on advice given by the league as well as health officials.”

But while Takehara said on Wednesday that the cluster “could have happened at any club,” writers and media outlets have raised concern over Sagan’s handling of the outbreak.

“Takehara told participants in Tuesday’s fan meeting that the PCR tests would ‘probably be negative,’ but it’s unclear what he based that statement on,” wrote freelance soccer writer Hideto Shimizu in a Yahoo News comment on Wednesday.

“Even though Kim felt ‘slightly uncomfortable’ on the day of the Kashima Antlers match (Aug. 8), and reported sluggishness and a fever on Sunday, he continued to take part in meetings and training sessions. His conduct was careless and there was a risk of infecting those around him.”

A Jiji Press story published on Tuesday night described Sagan’s handling of the situation as “naive,” saying “there is a possibility that Tosu overlooked several indications (of a cluster) and that “the club didn’t have an understanding of everyone’s health just by taking temperatures.”

While more questions are likely to emerge regarding Tosu’s actions during its two-week lockdown, league officials are for now focusing on updating its coronavirus protocols in order to identify and prevent future clusters.

“Until now we have established our guidelines in order to allow us to continue playing soccer as much as possible,” J. League Chairman Mitsuru Murai said in a statement on Thursday night. “We take the fact that a cluster infection has occurred within the J. League very seriously and consider this to be a league problem, not a club problem.

“Of course we will continue to revise our guidelines and focus not on holding practice sessions or games, but on preventing the spread of infections to the greatest possible extent.”

Levain Cup final returns to Kokuritsu

Tokyo's National Stadium will host the Levain Cup final for the first time since the cup tournament's 2013 edition. That year's final was the last to take place at the original venue before its reconstruction. | KYODO
Tokyo’s National Stadium will host the Levain Cup final for the first time since the cup tournament’s 2013 edition. That year’s final was the last to take place at the original venue before its reconstruction. | KYODO

In a rare announcement not related to the coronavirus, the J. League revealed on Thursday that the final of the J. League YBC Levain Cup will take place at Tokyo’s new National Stadium.

The original ground, known formally as Kokuritsu Kyogijo in Japanese, hosted all but two of the cup tournament’s finals between 1992 and 2013. The final shifted to Saitama Stadium from 2014 through 2019 as the famous venue, which served as the centerpiece of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, was demolished and rebuilt ahead of the now-postponed 2020 Summer Games.

The Levain Cup, which holds a Guinness World Record for the longest continuous sponsorship of a professional soccer competition, completed its abbreviated group stage earlier this week after the coronavirus forced the J. League to cut the number of matches in half.

The league held its open draw for the knockout stage on Thursday afternoon, pairing Consadole Sapporo with Yokohama F. Marinos, Cerezo Osaka with Kashiwa Reysol; Vissel Kobe with Kawasaki Frontale; and FC Tokyo with Nagoya Grampus.

The quarterfinals will take place on Sept. 2 followed by semifinals on Oct. 7, both of which will be single-legged. The final is scheduled for Nov. 7.

Muroya joins Tokyo exodus

FC Tokyo fans woke up on Friday to reports that a full transfer of right back Sei Muroya to German second-division side Hannover was imminent.

Tokyo defender Sei Muroya (right) will join Germany's Hannover on a free transfer, both clubs announced on Friday. | KYODO
Tokyo defender Sei Muroya (right) will join Germany’s Hannover on a free transfer, both clubs announced on Friday. | KYODO

The move was made formal by both clubs later in the morning, making Muroya the second Tokyo player — and third in the last 14 months — to depart the capital club for Europe. Midfielder Kento Hashimoto joined Russia’s Rostov last month, while playmaker Takefusa Kubo was famously signed by Real Madrid shortly after his 18th birthday in June 2019.

“I’m proud to have played in front of Tokyo’s amazing fans and supporters for 4½ years,” Muroya said in a statement. “The only regret I have is that I wasn’t able to present you with a title.

“With the club’s understanding and support and the experience I’ve gained in Tokyo, I’m going to do my best.”

With Hannover declaring Muroya to be a free signing on its official website, Hashimoto is the only one of Tokyo’s three Japan internationals to command a transfer fee — reported as being around $1 million.

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